A Good Read – The Stranger in the Woods, Michael Finkel


The Stranger in the Wood was the book on the top of the pile of my lockdown library. A fitting read for our current times.

A young man, Christopher Knight, inexplicably leaves his family, parks the car at the side of the road and disappears into the Maine woods to live alone for 27 years. That is until he is captured breaking into the kitchen of a children’s camp by a zealous ex Marine and local park warden and the game is up.

In this expertly researched book, Finkel examines Knight’s early life, his loner tendencies and his motivations for leaving. He visits Knight’s camp and interviews local residents, from whom Knight stole.

I guess we all have idealised notions of what a hermit should be and, romantically want them to be a rebel with a cause, whether it is disenchantment with modern life, a desire to go back to nature or a spiritual calling. In this Knight disappoints.

He is a hermit unable to shake his addiction to late 20th century American culture. Despite being an able hunter and fisherman, Knight chose to live close to civilization and steal food from the summer cabins dotted around the nearby lake.

His diet consists primarily of junk food. The kind of American food likely to give you scurvy. He has a thing for Mac N cheese, Mountain Dew and marshmallows. He steals trashy novels, he steals radios, he even steals a portable tele and, when discovered, his camp contained a dump with 20 odd years of plastic litter slowly degrading into the forest. It is hard to find any of this laudable.

What did strike me as admirable though was his complete lack of desire to ‘tell his story.’ How deeply refreshing in this day and age. He didn’t want to share his insights, he just wanted to be left alone.

Unfortunately for Knight, Finkel’s fascination with the story just won’t let up and, after an exchange of letters, he, uninvited, flies across the country and visits Knight in jail and follows this up by invading his families home. This persistence feels intrusive but it pays off and he manages to win Knights confidence and prise his story out of him.

In some ways, where the book works best, for me, is not in this personal tale but in placing it in context of historical account of hermits and explorations of the psychological make up of the people who would choose this life.

Christopher Knight is clearly a man who doesn’t fit in society, who finds interaction with other people an exhausting performance and feels he can only truly be himself when alone.

After two weeks of lockdown with the world suddenly online and the blinking eye of my laptop invading my living room I know how he feels.

Shut in the towns unable to escape, the thought of vanishing into the nearest woods is suddenly even more compelling.

The story of someone who truly went into retreat and found solace in being alone felt strangely refreshing. But before I disappear I think I will pack something more nutritious than Mac N Cheese

A Good Read – The Signalman, Charles Dickens

The SignalmanA perfect Ghost story for a dark winter’s night, The Signalman perfectly conjures up the atmosphere of Higham Station on the Hoo Peninsula, the gateway to the marshes.

Even today the little station has a feeling of being lost in a different age, with it’s ornate metal footbridge, friendly staff and addition of a quirky book swap and art gallery. It is still an outpost and a place where I have collected many a confused Londoner to take them for a walk across the North Kent Marshes.

Dickens would have known the station well as he travelled between his London residence and Gad’s Hill Place, his country retreat, where he wrote many of his later books in the Swiss chalet in the garden.

For Dickens the railways were both a huge convenience and a source of fear, hardly surprising, after he survived a fatal train crash at Staplehurst where he was one of the first on the scene to help the wounded and dying passengers. It is little wonder that this story is full of the dangers of train travel.

The story starts with the narrator calling down into the steep cutting to the Signalman below, who diligently carries out his duties from a little wooden hut beside a long dark tunnel leading beneath the cliff face.

Dickens takes us into his world and we shelter with them in the hut from the mists of the damp railway siding and watch as the signalman checks his dials and charts and waves flags to signal to the passing trains.

The signalman is on edge and we soon learn that he is haunted by a ghost at the tunnel entrance who has twice prophesised disaster on the railway and has now come again.

Dickens, as always, does a marvellous job of creating atmosphere and painting a picture of the world of the signalman in rich detail and we are treated to some lovely florid Victorian imagery of young women dying in railway carriages for no apparent reason. At times the formality of language, which is a feature of the times, makes things a little clunky and, I was left a bit confused by the twist in the tale but Dickens paints such a fantastic picture that I won’t ever visit Higham Station again without looking for the ghost standing under the red light by the tunnel.

A Good Read – Islander, A Journey Around Our Archipelago, Patrick Barkham

islander patrick barkhamPatrick Barkham sets out on a journey to some of the small islands of Britain, drawn by the story of the, near forgotten writer, Compton Mackenzie, who owned and lived on a series of small islands from the 1890’s.
Each island conjures up a different story which Barkham tackles with sensitivity. From island as tax haven, to island as religious retreat, to island as hedonist party zone he travels with a light touch and captures something true about each destination.
On the Island of Eigg, where I spent several weeks working last year, he navigates the choppy waters between the idealists who go there drawn by its environmental credentials and the determined drinkers who congregate at the pier and snub drink driving regulations. He understands instinctively, as maybe I didn’t, that small island life requires people to rub along together and forgive a multitude of personality quirks.
The book raises interesting questions as to the benefits island communities bring to the mainlanders who often heavily subsidise them and suggests that islands provide a pointer to the future as they champion sustainability, community and local heritage which provides a healthy counter balance to fast paced cities with their excessive consumption and social isolation.
Less successful, I felt, was the rendering of the story of Compton Mackenzie. Barkham chooses to visit islands which Mackenzie had no relationship with and ultimately doesn’t illuminate the artists draw to island life. The book I felt would have stood up just as well without this thread.
For me, the strength of this book is its excellent travel writing about little known places and its insight into the lives of the quirky British characters who choose to live in remote places. I loved the tale of the sisters guarding the Tomb of the Eagles on South Ronaldsay and the nun in waders living a hermits life on Bardsey. I immediately added both these to my wish list of places to visit.
Barkham sketches the people of these islands magnificently but touches something deeper when he comes to rest on a strip of saltmarsh off the Essex coast. Here he recounts how the island lingers after he has left, etching into his skin like a tree ring to tell a story of one moment in his life.

A Good Read – Inglorious, Conflict in the uplands – Mark Avery

I am conflicted and sometimes, I feel, hypocritical when it comes to shooting.

As a wildlife lover I cannot conceive of every wishing to kill a living creature for fun and yet all year I talk to farmers about ‘predator control,’ two sanitised words which equate to killing foxes.

Foxes are beautiful creatures but there is no getting away from the fact that they cause major problems to beleaguered ground nesting birds such as lapwing and, unless you can afford to erect a big fence around your land, shooting foxes is the only way that waders can currently survive on the small pieces of habitat suitable for their needs.

After reading Mark Avery’s book I am also convinced that there is also no getting away from the fact that hen harriers cause major problems for red grouse .The difference is that, unlike foxes, hen harriers are protected and threatened with extinction as a breeding species in England due to the activities of game keepers on grouse moors. While red grouse are living at such densities on shooting estates that they are developing such gruesome sounding illnesses as bulgy eye!

Mark Avery feels that hen harriers and grouse shooting cannot survive together and numerous scientific reports support this. One has to go and in his book Inglorious, Conflict in the Uplands, Mark persuasively argues for the banning of driven grouse shooting.

Far from being full of dry facts and tub thumping rhetoric this book is very readable due to Mark’s conversational style and, while the man seems well able to hold his own in debate, he actually comes across as reasonable and balanced. This is not a vendetta against land owners or a call to end all sport shooting in this country rather a laying out of the argument against once form of shooting.

Like many other people in this country I thought about sport shooting as a rather quaint, antiquated activity practiced by toffs that probably doesn’t do that much harm to the countryside as a whole and provides a source of free range meat possibly preferable to the lives and deaths of factory farmed animals. However after reading Inglorious I feel much better informed and much less likely to eat grouse.

Grouse shooting relies on big ‘bags’ of grouse to be killed by wealthy punters. Many of whom nowadays are as likely to be city bankers with more money than sense than country squires. In order to create this mass population of grouse the shooting estates burn off tracts of moorland in order to encourage the growth of young heather, which the grouse eat. The burning of moorland destroys blanket bogs, a rare habitat, which the UK is especially blessed with, having 13% of the world’s total. The burning also destroys peatland which in England alone sends the same amount of carbon into the air annually as 140,000 cars! It also contributes to downstream flooding which has devastated livelihoods in places like Hebden Bridge. If all of that wasn’t bad enough we are paying for this environmental damage twice over as the grouse moors receive government money to manage the land for wildlife.

It is farcical and could only be supported by a government whose ministers often went to the same schools and probably are involved in the same funny handshake societies as the grouse moor owners.

The evidence also stacks up that gamekeepers are killing hen harriers. The shootings industry would have you believe that illegal persecution is down to the activities of just a ‘few bad apples.’ But the industry seems to have done little to remove those bad apples as hen harrier numbers are still pitifully low.

Mark Avery suggests that there should be around 2000 more pairs of hen harrier in the UK than there currently is. This year only 9 nests in England fledged chicks. The government feels this is a remarkable success.

Given the option I would rather have hen harriers than grouse shooters in my country and if the two can’t live with each other then I am quite happy to live with the latter’s extinction.


Mark doesn’t want you to just read his book and walk away he wants you to take up arms for his cause and the book ends with a variety of suggestions for action you could take to help. Good for him. It is hard to close the book and do nothing. For my part I donated to an anti wildlife crime campaign, made a note in my diary to attend a Hen Harrier Day event (11-12th August) and set off to the coast to witness one of these beautiful birds while I still can.

A Good Read – Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain.

The Living Mountain
When I was 22 I went to the Cairngorms in the company of a fell runner. Thank the Lord I was only 22, as he took me up the mountain at a fair lick and declared I looked much healthier when I arrived puffing and red faced on the summit. Now I want to go again thanks to reading The Living Mountain.
Nan Shepherd knew these mountains with an intimacy normally reserved for indigenous tribesmen. She describes every element of the mountain with exquisite attention to detail, the taste of the air, the feel of heather under bare feet, the forming of ice in a mountain stream.
Do not think though that this makes the book dry and fact ridden, anything but. Her love affair with the mountain and it’s people comes through in every line. There is such delicacy of prose here that you stop and re read a line for the shear beauty of it.


I find it hard to imagine a man writing this book. That is not to say that men cannot be great nature writers, just that I feel they would see the mountain differently, walk it differently, as a summit to climb, as a thing to be conquered. They maybe would not take the time to see and feel as she did about each flower and change of light.
The more I read this book the more I began to think that, if Nan Shepherd were alive today, I would be encouraging her to take other women out into the mountains. There is something hugely liberating about reading about a women who walks alone in the wilderness and doesn’t once feel afraid. If this was somehow easier to do in the 1940’s when she wrote this book, than it is now, then we have gone backwards as a society.
As a women who also walks alone in the countryside and doesn’t feel afraid then maybe it is for me to take up that mantel and lead other women into the hills and say, ‘look, this is for you too.’
The historical nature of this book is also part of the fascination. Shepherd writes of a world of downed fighter planes in lonely gullies, of old women living in bothies, of the felling of the Caledonian forest. This book more than any I have possibly ever read transports you into it’s landscape. You can read this on a packed underground train and miss your stop as you walk the summits and skinny dip in the lochs and sit by a peat fire in a lonely mountain hut.
I would rate The Living Mountain alongside The Peregrine as the best that nature writing can be. This is a book to keep and savour again and again and underline the passages and visit them when you are down and the world has gone dark and you are in bed alone and need to be up among the mountains with Nan.

A Good Read – Russell Brand – Revolution.

revolution-russell-brandRevolution – Russell Brand

Russell Brand? Never gave him much thought until recently. He was just some quite funny bloke with a massive ego and a lot of women. Then I heard he was actually a troubled soul who wanted to start a revolution and build Utopia and he began to sound like my kind of man.

I watched his documentary, The Emperors New Clothes and came away fired up, wanting to do something but not knowing quite where to direct this energy. I feel the same way after reading his book Revolution.

Revolution sets forth a case as to why our present economic and governmental system is exploiting ordinary people to make profit for a few wealthy men and women. It sets out what the alternative could be and it makes these arguments accessible. So far, so good.

True, Russell Brand is not the most coherent of writers. He goes off on rambling asides which sometimes seem to lead nowhere. The sort of stories which probably work much better in Stand Up than in print. However, he does make ideas which could be dry and hard work, readable. He uses his fame and notoriety in well intentioned ways and I won’t knock him for that.

I don’t agree with all of Russ’s ideas but by half way through I’m thinking, ‘Great, Fantastic, we’re going to start a socially and ecologically sound collective. Where do I sign? Where do I start? What’s step one?’ Problem is, Russell Brand’s book never tells me.

The man himself would know doubt say that, if he sets himself up as a leader to follow then it is against the principle of a collective, but as he never gives us any ideas of where the ordinary person in the street should begin then I’m left feeling demoralised. Feeling that I am being done over by all these rich people and am powerless to stop it.

Another chapter or two giving some grass roots ideas and organisations to get the ball rolling would have been really useful. A few tips on how to stop paying your taxes and avoid jail would also have been helpful.  Revolutions need talk, personally I think they probably also need leaders but what they need most of all is action.